Graham's farm has transitioned from a high input to low input farming operation
Alwinton, Northumberland, England
Graham Dixon runs Alwinton Farm which sits on approximately 900 acres and produces grass-fed lamb, using no fertilisers or chemical pesticides. Over the last thirty years, the farm has increasingly focused on its environmental impact – partly to support nature and climate, but also to ensure that the farm is as economically robust as possible.
Graham Dixon, Alwinton Farm
Graham remembers, “In the early days, when I came on the scene, the fertiliser input was astronomical. You know, there were 100 in-wintered cows and calves, that's 200 cattle. There were 1000 ewes. I mean, it was literally a factory with high inputs; high energy inputs, high fuel inputs. At the time, that was the way things were going. [Farmers] were encouraged to produce more, more cheaply. And we actually didn't think that model suited the environment we lived in, and it wasn't the way we wanted to work. The stress levels on the people on the ground were much greater. So we wanted a working environment which people could work happily and comfortably in every day. I think we've achieved that here. I think we have developed a system that is worker friendly and good for the animals. I think we have happy animals and I think we have happy people. Surely that's one of the key measures of what we're doing - whether the people are happy and whether the animals are happy.”
One of things Graham did to enable a transition to a happier way of working was to understand their carbon footprint. Graham explains, “The motivation to [understand the carbon footprint] is economic – because having a better carbon footprint is cost effective. If you know that you're using too much fuel, then you look at measures to reduce the fuel usage. If you that know you're using too much electricity or electricity is a big part of your costs, then you look at measures you can take to reduce your electricity use. If you look at bought in feed input, then you can take measures to reduce bought in feed. All of those are economic benefits. So it's not just environmentally beneficial, it's economically beneficial.”
Graham also talks about how he grazes the sheep to minimise damage to the soil. One way of doing this is to aerate the soil, which Graham points out, “helps water percolation which actually benefits carbon sequestration in itself, but also prevents runoff. So you've killed two birds with one stone. Unfortunately, we haven't got enough science to positively say that we are creating benefits. But the suggestion is that the more water that percolates through the soil, the better carbon sequestration you have.” He explains that root systems help upland pasture absorb water the most effectively because “increased depths and soil health in general is going to help water percolation… healthy soil is a healthy environment. One of the ways to destroy soil is overgrazing as well as anything where you end up with bare soil.”
Graham is at pains to point out that there are no silver bullet solutions and says, “We need to get the science right. We need to know what the impact of planting 1/3 of my farm into trees is going to be. Not only to the environment, but to the local economy, and the other things that impacts. It's becoming clearer and clearer that, yeah, we need to plant more trees for sure, and we can do that, but to plant umpteen acres of commercial woodland, [the science doesn’t look convincing]. And… if you look at flood mitigation, run-off is far worse in a planted commercial tree environment than it is on open hill land. If you look at Kielder and Kielder dam, which must be one of the most managed areas of landscape in Europe, the River Tyne still floods communities further down. Well, if 55,000 acres of woodland and the water management system can't deal with that, then we need to rethink... I mean, it is washing out roads and that is a direct result of planting commercial trees.”
Over the past 30 - 40 years that Graham has been at Alwinton, flooding has been an increasingly serious issue. “We had a spate of a couple of 1 in 100 year floods which woke a lot of people up to the fact that we needed to address a situation. And the cheapest, most efficient way of addressing that situation is at the watershed, at the source, rather than stopgap measures further downstream which are incredibly expensive, phenomenally expensive. So, in total, we've done about 35 leaky dams over the whole catchment area, which has reduced the peak flows by about 30%.”
Graham is passionate about the ways in which farmers can be a force for change. He points to the potential for renewable energy as an example of something “that's good for the economy, the farm, and the environment. Farmers by and large, have that opportunity to [introduce renewable energy]. They have the roof space, they have the scope, they have the land area. So they're in an ideal situation to actually make a difference.” He goes on to say, “There are a lot of lessons we've learnt over the years. But I think the key thing we've achieved is that we changed the farm from a very, very high input 'productive' farm to a low cost, low input farming operation, which works economically. But it also works environmentally.”
Graham wants politicians and policy makers to “recognise that the only way climate, carbon mitigation or environmental systems are going to work is if everybody is on board and in agreement. We need to produce food. We don't want to become park keepers, we like our animals. That's what we get up in the morning for. But we also like our environment. And people should recognise that we don't regard the environment as something that we just use. We [farmers] enjoy the environment as much as anybody. You know, usually the discussion around coffee in the morning is who in the group has just seen the egret that appeared yesterday, or where the grey partridge are nesting. They're the discussions that we have around the breakfast table. I think decision makers should recognise that... and that farmers have a deep, great knowledge that is virtually untapped.”
A rapid transition to sustainable farming and land use by 2030 is one of 5 'no regrets' actions we are urging government to take to speed real climate action.
More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.